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A Chinese driver says he crashed his Tesla on autopilot because of a bad translation

Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon
And it drives itself?
By Josh Horwitz
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The first major accident involving Tesla’s autopilot feature, in May, ended in death. The latest one is ending in a debate over semantics.

On Aug. 3 Luo Zhen, a 33-year-old software engineer, crashed his Tesla Model S into a Volkswagen Santana parked along the side of a road in Beijing while using the car’s autopilot feature.

Luo suffered no injuries, and damage to his car was minimal. Pictures on his Weibo profile (registration required, link in Chinese) show just dents and scratches by one of the vehicle’s front wheels.

But Luo believes Tesla should be held responsible for the accident. The reason? The company markets its autopilot feature in the Chinese language as zidong jiashi. This literally translates to “self-driving,” implying the car can drive itself.

But technically Tesla’s autopilot feature is “semi-autonomous,” not “self-driving.” Drivers who use the feature are advised to keep their hands on the wheel at all times.

A Tesla spokeswoman wrote to Reuters in an email:

The driver of the Tesla, whose hands were not detected on the steering wheel, did not steer to avoid the parked car and instead scraped against its side… As clearly communicated to the driver in the vehicle, autosteer is an assist feature that requires the driver to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times, to always maintain control and responsibility for the vehicle, and to be prepared to take over at any time.

But Luo maintains that Tesla misled consumers like himself. “Tesla has always marketed ‘self-driving’ as a major selling point. All promotional materials and information passed on by salespeople led me to believe that this was a ‘self-driving’ car, and could manage any number of situations in heavy traffic,” he tells Quartz.

Chinese media and consumers, much like their English-speaking counterparts, regularly conflate the terms “self-driving” with “semi-autonomous,” which are two very different things. Tesla uses neither term on its English-language website to describe Autopilot. But it uses zidong jiashi next to the feature’s description on its Chinese site.

Luo says Tesla should change its marketing materials accordingly—but that might not help with sales. “If from the beginning Tesla had marketed itself as a “semi-autonomous” car, and admitted its technology wasn’t mature, I never would have bought a Tesla,” he says.

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